Eliza McCartney's important leap from Olympic medallist to climate change champion

More and more Kiwi athletes are becoming aware of their impact on climate change, and want to be part of the solution, Angela Walker reports.
Sport was initially one of Covid-19s most visible casualties.

The 2020 Olympics were postponed amid cancellation of countless other events. Athletes soldiered on during lockdowns, training alone in makeshift home gyms.

Shifting to Level 3 has track and field athlete Eliza McCartney getting closer to pole vaulting for the first time in months.

But despite the upheaval, sport soon found ways to adapt. Virtual events pitted competitors against each other via Zoom, special team quarantine arrangements were made, and sporting contests resumed, albeit in empty stadiums. Sport has been kept alive during the pandemic thanks to new and innovative solutions.

Imagine then if sport could apply the same inventiveness to another global crisis climate change.

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Its something Olympic pole vaulter Eliza McCartney has been thinking about for a while. Its been really interesting watching the worlds response to Covid, she says. Because if we can make such rapid change to an immediate threat, then surely we can apply that to a threat that is immediate but where the consequences arent as apparent right now.

McCartney has lent her voice to a number of sustainability campaigns in recent years. She is the public face of organisations like Trees That Count a charity that champions native tree planting, and Re:Mobile, a phone recycling scheme.

The environmental science student is one of a growing number of athletes active in this area, spurred on perhaps by the impact climate change is already having on sport.

Who could forget the disruption to the 2019 Rugby World Cup when Typhoon Hagibis slammed into Japan? Or the blanket of bushfire smoke that enveloped Melbourne during the 2020 Australian Tennis Open, with players suffering on-court coughing fits. Closer to home, the tiria Rugby Club joined the growing list of sportsgrounds around the world to be submerged by flooding.

Last year, a detailed report Playing Against the Clock (published by the Rapid Transition Alliance) warned of dire consequences for the sports sector. It forecasts that half of previous Winter Olympic cities will be unreliable hosts within three decades.

And it foretells a future where extreme weather will damage playing surfaces, heatwaves will cause heat stroke in players, and sea level rises will erode sportsgrounds and golf links.

Phil Walter/Getty Images
Olympian Eliza McCartney plants trees with kids at Long Bay as part of a Greening of the Games Initiative in 2019

With a future so grim, its not surprising that athletes are becoming climate activists. Chris Arthur, who works with leading athletes every day in her role as Head of Athlete Life at High Performance Sport New Zealand, says shes seen a surge of interest by athletes in environmental matters.

They are taking it much more seriously than previous generations. Its a big thing for athletes, she says. "More and more are thinking about the impact they have on the environment, with things like offsetting carbon emissions, recycling, changing diets to be vegetarian or vegan and considering what else they can do personally.

While McCartney is one such athlete, she acknowledges theres a part of her carbon footprint she cant entirely control.

Its really tricky because as athletes our job is to go to competitions and compete, but as New Zealanders that often means a lot of air travel, she says.

Obviously domestically there are options. When a group of us are competing somewhere, carpooling is a great example of how to reduce our carbon footprint. So its about continuing to make the small choices along the way to make a difference.

Here in New Zealand, the LiteFoot Trust have been working at the intersection of sport and the environment for the past decade. Their LiteClub programme has enabled clubs to reduce their environmental impact. With the help of high-profile sportspeople like Sarah Walker and Barbara Kendall, 1667 clubs have made efficiency upgrades to collectively prevent over 10,000 tonnes of carbon entering the atmosphere.

Olympic Games BMX medallist Sarah Walker is part of the LiteClub trying to reduce carbon emissions

Leading the way among national sporting organisations, Yachting New Zealand runs a sustainability education programme for sailors and clubs that is already paying dividends. The 49er, 40erFX and Nacra 17 world championships, held in Auckland in 2019, was a finalist in World Sailings sustainability awards.

Some athletes are afraid to lend their voice to climate change campaigns, fearing they will be charged with hypocrisy or flight shamed.

Emma Pocock, founder of Frontrunners an organisation that helps athletes engage on climate change - says this is just a way to silence athletes.

Interviewed for the podcast Emergency On Planet Sport, she says: We dont have great alternatives to air travel Until we do the reality is, if we want sport to continue, athletes are going to have to keep flying.

This is a problem that we have to solve, but its also a bit of a distraction, because in the scheme of global emissions, the contribution that athletes flights make to that is quite minimal.

I often say to athletes, its great that you want to address your contribution to the problem, but the biggest impact you can make on climate change is actually to be speaking to your fans about the importance of acting.

Phil Walter/Getty Images
Eliza McCartney is passionate about helping young people address climate change.

McCartney is passionate about making a difference, but also points out that more can be done beyond individual effort. Id like to see more awareness particularly at events and competitions, really putting it to the fore of what they do.

Shes seen firsthand the difference event organisers can make, recalling two back-to-back Diamond League events she attended in Stockholm and Oslo. They were attempting to be carbon neutral and gave everyone the option of training in between the two events to reduce their carbon footprint. Theres definitely room for much more to happen in sport.

Despite the lack of engagement by much of the sector, some sport organisations have already stepped up. Last month the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced it has aligned with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, setting a target to reduce its emissions by 45 percent by 2030. The IOC will also offset more than its remaining carbon emissions, making it carbon positive by 2024.

And its not waiting until then. Tokyo 2021 has committed to carbon neutrality, and plans to showcase sustainable solutions, such as Olympic medals made of recycled mobile phones.

The IOC is one of over 200 international signatories of the Sport for Climate Action Framework. The United Nations initiative helps participants take responsibility for their carbon footprint, and wants sport to inspire climate action.

Andrew Simms, of the Rapid Transition Alliance agrees. Sport provides some of societys most influential role models. If sport can change how it operates to act at the speed and scale necessary to halt the climate emergency, others will follow, he says.

If its players also speak out and say they believe clean air and a stable climate matter, millions more will see the possibilities for change.

While some athletes and sport organisations have been singularly impressive in their commitment to the climate emergency, many are yet to make a start.

The question of the carbon footprint of sport is an important one, McCartney says. There is definitely more work that can be done to work out ways to reduce sports overall carbon footprint.

McCartney and her teammates know just how big the challenge is. But there are few groups more used to rising to big challenges than athletes. Perhaps Covid-19 has provided a dress rehearsal for sport to play its part in preserving a world that is fit for the future.

Angela Walker is a NZ Olympian rhythmic gymnast and Commonwealth Games gold and triple bronze medallist. She is an author and LockerRoom columnist.


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